A Question of Intent

Washington Times 12.29.95
Balint Vazsonyi

A panel convened by the Council for Basic Education has found the National Standards for U. S. History "reasonable;" their objections concern merely the actual teaching examples. In other words, the principles are laudable - it is only their translation into practice which had gone awry.

Yet it is precisely the translation into practice that tells the real story. As a young boy in Hungary, I remember the Stalinists' Constitution (vintage 1949) which opened by vesting all power in the people and continued to set forth all things good and virtuous to be experienced henceforth throughout the land. The practice, as it actually unfolded, began with the suppression of all political parties, continued with laying mines along the borders, and reached maturity with the nightly deportation to destinations unknown of people for the crime of, say, having owned a small grocery store.

In its review of the CBE report, the Los Angeles Times quoted the author of the Standards, Gary Nash, as saying that "the intent of the examples was to provide teachers with many active learning activities [sic] and strategies for bringing history alive..."

If anyone is in doubt about the real intent behind the new National Standards for United States History, published as part of "Goals 2000," the images of its fifty-five illustrations provide insight. They illustrate, indeed, how the authors use the term "standard" to cover up their true objective, which is to do away with standards - and with history - altogether.

A great pity, that. Whereas school children in other lands grow up imbued with legends handed down before the emergence of written history, American teachers have a real story to tell: that of the American Founding which - in the absence of common ethnic or religious roots - is the central binding agent in the fabric of this country. Images, such as George Washington at Valley Forge or the title page of Common Sense, which form an inalienable part of this glue, are fixed in the memory of every adult American. They are also known to people all over the world. I even encountered them in textbooks while attending school in (Stalinist!) Hungary.

But, as the fifty-five illustrations of the Standards attest, these same images will not be communicated to future generations of Americans. Of the total of fifty-five plates which adorn the Standards, twenty-two have little, if anything, to do with the subject matter. Examples include "Mural, Centro Cultural de La Raza" and "Teacher Gloria Sasso with students." Eighteen depict what I am compelled to label "America the Horrible." In this category, we encounter the Ku Klux Klan on parade (more than once), and "Time Table of the Lowell Mills." Three of the images are unidentified (sailing ship - from where and when?), which leaves a mere 12 of 55, or about 20%, which may be considered appropriate - though even some of these are debatable.

There are no pictures of great leaders or epoch-making inventors. The missing images identify the goals of the authors even more clearly than the illustrations they chose. Much has been said and written about their intention to 'restore balance.' But history is not a TV talk show. There are people, events, and ideas which have shaped the country in which we live. What was and what was not of primary importance is not a matter of personal opinion or of gender/racial balance. We have come to dwell in towns and cities, as opposed to tents or huts; we have availed ourselves of trains, automobiles and airplanes, as opposed to horses; we run our surroundings with electrical, as opposed to manual, power. Above all, we adopted a peaceful transition of power, and a steadily growing proportion of Americans (and I mean, of ALL Americans) have come to live at a constantly increasing level of well-being. This observation applies to personal liberty and possessions alike. Producing a sequence of fifty-five images which suggests otherwise is indefensible.

In order to assess the significance of this particular debate, it is also essential to remember that each new class of students starts out at ground level. Teachers may have grown weary of looking at, say, Washington crossing the Delaware, but think of the child who has yet to hear about it for the first time. Every aspect of the Standards, therefore, must be viewed through the eyes of those who would depend on them for that crucial first account of their nation's history. This is all the more critical because our country, as opposed to others which evolved over a long time, was deliberately created in a specific way. People actually sat down and figured out what it ought to be. The manner in which this act of Founding is communicated to the young student will determine the attitude of the grown person. Beyond that, history standards ought to focus on key events and personalities.

The Standards insist that we have fallen short. Short of...what? Or is the intent simply to make us feel guilty? And why would the authors want to split and forever imprison future generations in opposing groups, referring to "peoples" wherever they can? Why do they resent this country's patently English origins? Why do they, apparently, enjoy depicting the United States as a heartless, struggling, failing society?

Recently, driving from Budapest airport toward the city center, my wife and I passed a very strikingly-colored soccer stadium and she inquired about its name. Mechanically, I uttered the name and realized with a start that I had not done so in decades. Soon after the New Hungarian Constitution of 1949, the Bolsheviks forbade the use of both name and color. Not even a soccer team and its stadium were permitted to retain their time-honored identity. The Communists also renamed most every street, just a couple of years after the Nazis had already changed them from the original. They then replaced the designation of Time, just as Mr. Nash proposes: no more B.C. or A.D. All traces of national identity were to be eradicated.

The gaping discrepancy between the stated intention and the actual practice reminds me of a story which made the rounds not long after the New Hungarian Constitution and all its 'blessings' had been broadcast to the nation. One day, this man turns up at the state health delivery office and asks to see the eye-ear specialist. "There is no such person" responds the receptionist, "is it your eyes or ears you want examined?" "No, no," insists the patient, "I must see the eye-ear specialist." "As I tried to tell you, there is no such doctor. What's your complaint anyway?"

The man considers for a moment, then says: "I hear one thing and see quite another!"